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Q&A: Egypt's first 'playback theatre'

Can drama help to heal victims of political violence and oppression?

Last updated: 17 Nov 2013 12:48
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"Any form of cultural activity under occupation" can be a type of resistance, says Rivers [Ben Rivers/Al Jazeera]

Ben Rivers, an educator and registered drama therapist, specialises in the use of applied theatre for community mobilisation, cultural activism and collective trauma response.

He currently works at the Freedom Theatre where he co-founded the Freedom Bus initiative - a Playback Theatre project engaging thousands of Palestinians and people from abroad in cultural actions that promote civil rights and equality. This interview was conducted as Rivers prepared for a new Playback Theatre in Cairo.

Mark LeVine: Aside from the obvious change in government, how has Cairo changed since you first did playback theatre in 2012?

Ben Rivers: Our first performances in Cairo took place 15 months after the January 25 uprising. Popular euphoria had already been replaced by a general cynicism and disillusionment brought about by Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' (SCAF) monopolisation of the transitional process. But there was still a sense of pride in the revolution's achievements and especially the momentary suspension of social, religious, sectarian and certain political divides.

Sadly, it's hard to imagine the people we focused on then being considered "heroes" of the "revolution" today. Then, our discussions with local activists and artists led to an agreement to focus on the role of workers and unions in igniting the revolution, on political prisoners and the families of people martyred by SCAF, on the stories of revolutionary street artists and musicians and, finally, on the experiences of Syrian refugees. Now workers are silent, artists are repressed or co-opted, and Syrians and Palestinians are demonised. It's a huge change for the worse.

Levine: So how can you fight these trends as a theatre maker?

Rivers: It's hard. For example, today I had coffee with an Egyptian university professor. Knowing that I live and work in Palestine, she asked if I was a Brotherhood supporter - for in her mind most Palestinians have been recruited by radical Islamist elements intent upon wreaking havoc in Egypt. She then went on to declare her undivided support for the military takeover and said that the current military rule was necessary in order to maintain stability. I could only wonder how an alleged humanitarian could endorse a state institution known for its long history of brutality against the Egyptian people. Perhaps the answer lies in the country's preference for a devil they know.

In comparison, the activists we worked with in 2012 were certainly wary of an Islamist takeover, but few people predicted the near wholesale takeover by the Brotherhood, its utter failure to govern, and then Morsi's removal and the bloodiest massacre in modern Egyptian history. Most alarmingly is the extraordinary amnesia that seems to have gripped some revolutionaries in their championing of a military-appointed government whose interests remain 100 percent, deep-state oriented, and the ease with which the media - including new media - have been used to whip up xenophobic sentiments towards Syrians and Palestinians.

Levine: How does the situation in Egypt compare to Palestine today in terms of repression and has it changed since your first visit?

Rivers: Israel/Palestine is very schizophrenic in this regard. On the one hand, Israel can get away with justifying the massacre of Gazan civilians or the murder of activists aboard the Mavi Marmara. On the other hand, international scrutiny, at least in the West Bank, seems to deter Israel from committing large-scale massacres that might further threaten its public image, at least till now, although it routinely attacks peaceful protesters with increasing disregard for how much force is used. The main difference, of course, is that the Egyptian state apparatus is Egyptian whereas the Palestinians are occupied. For this reason, the Israeli state can easily conscript the general Israeli populace - and even the PA - into its repression of Palestinians. Also, Palestinians reject military rule while most Egyptians seem to be currently embracing it.

Levine: Why is Playback Theatre so powerful in contexts like Palestine and Egypt? What is it all about?

Rivers: In Palestine, we use Playback Theatre in communities impacted by high levels of political violence and structural oppression - manifested as land confiscation, water theft, home demolitions, restricted access to health and education services, limited economic opportunities, political imprisonment and torture. We work most often with remote, Area C communities that are under full Israeli civil and security control - communities that feel alienated by distant, high-level political processes that supposedly aim to secure their rights and freedoms. These are communities that have struggled to redefine their own forms of resistance amid the changing geopolitical realities that impact the Palestinian body politic.

Creating broader Palestinian and international solidarity is therefore key to their ongoing resistance against land seizures and the like. Through the medium of story-telling, community members see a clear way to inform other, non-local Palestinians about the particular predicaments facing their region.

A question might be whether there is any difference between Playback Theatre and other, more common forms of "testimony taking" - interviews with reporters, human rights workers, and international commissions, etc. We believe the arts hold a unique advantage over more conventional, verbally oriented and cerebral approaches - mostly because the arts ignite the full range of our senses and thus promise a more complete engagement with the questions or realities that the community is presenting. The listener/audience is in direct contact with the teller.

Ultimately, any form of cultural activity under occupation can be viewed as a form of resistance. To participate in the creation and celebration of beauty is a direct affront to a system that tries to brutally crush and dehumanise oppressed people. The stories we "play back" challenge the propaganda efforts of powerful media entities and their state and corporate backers. In so doing, they empower ordinary community members to imagine different futures. Of course, the same need exists today in Egypt, sadly. Most important, in both places Playback Theatre can be used to share stories that remind the audience of their ability to withstand ongoing violence and oppression. Such stories challenge the victim narratives that are so frequently imposed and circulated by well-meaning, external observers.

Levine: This seems to be at the core of the broader agenda of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, and key to its success.

Rivers: All of the Freedom Theatre's theatrical productions are explicitly political - providing a critique of the occupation, international complicity, or the PA's role in repressing its own subjects. But prior to 2011, the Freedom Theatre did not engage directly with the grassroots popular struggle movement, nor was programming extended beyond Jenin Refugee Camp. Our Freedom Bus initiative signalled a shift of focus towards the development of strategic relationships throughout historic Palestine and in neighbouring Arab countries.

Ultimately, cultural resistance cannot be reduced to simplistic definitions that focus on creative protest against oppressive structures. Art offers much more than this. Our humanity is awakened through art - that is, art that involves the group or community. By engaging in participatory, creative processes, we experience a transcendence of our aloneness. All of these experiences help to nourish a more connected, reciprocal, caring and loving society in Egypt, Palestine/Israel and globally. 

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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